- Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe by Charles Freeman
Charles Freeman’s Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe recounts the legends of various medieval Christian relics and the attitudes of people toward them at all levels of society from kings to popes to the laity. The book’s overall arc is chronological, beginning with early Christianity (380s) and ending with the Counterreformation, but chapters are very short (5–19 pages) and sometimes organized thematically (anti-Semitism, blood cults), sometimes geographically (England, Byzantium), and sometimes around “great men” (Charlemagne, Louis IX). The book is intended for a general audience and assumes the reader views the medieval period as irrational and “alien to our own ‘scientific’ times and therefore risks giving the impression that this was a world where credulity ruled” (p. xiii). His account of relics is not meant to change this view, but rather to offer a psychological explanation of why so many people could be so irrational for so long: “Yet if the supernatural is treated as a ‘real’ world, on a different level, its events, or lack of them, can be accepted as easily as they were in the natural world we can see or touch. Fantasy perhaps, but it is an imagined world that balances the harshness of the material one” (p. 269).
A strength of the book is that it shows how relics were an accepted part of medieval culture at every level of society, even if the interpretation and uses of relics differed. Freeman presents relics as political currency in European and foreign affairs, as well as addresses the economic importance of relics to the towns that were supported by shrines. He gives vivid accounts of pilgrimages to Jerusalem and European towns, and suggests that continued religious support of these shrines cannot be divorced from the wealth pilgrims brought to the holy sites. He also touches on theological debates about relics, saints, and the resurrection of the body, but this material is often too general to help understand the plurality of ideas and practices in which medieval people engaged.
Freeman’s selection of material demonstrates the dynamism between Church authorities and lay religious activity. One example of this negotiation of power is the development of the host—an object that only priests could create through the act of consecration—as a relic (p. 195). He claims that concentration on the “Eucharistic host can be seen as one way in which the clergy could divert attention from popular relic cults that were threatening the established Church” (p. 196). A discussion of the popularity of Eucharistic devotion among women such as [End Page 965] Juliana of Cornillon, whose mystical vision and advocacy established the feast of Corpus Christi, would help further illustrate the complexity of power relations surrounding relics. In Freeman’s estimation, this attention to the host marks “a new phase in the process by which the clergy isolate themselves from the laity. This was certainly to be one of the factors that led to the readiness with which many were to abandon the Church at the Reformation” (p. 196). As events move closer to the Reformation, Freeman’s language shifts from one of description to one of inevitability; pilgrimages by the poor to various shrines continued for over a hundred years after the authorities condemned such activities, and yet Freeman claims “it was inevitable that there would eventually be a major confrontation and it took place in 1476” in Southern Germany (p. 201).
At first, Freeman seems to offer Protestant Christianity as a more rational belief system, but ultimately Luther disappoints him: “One might hope that in an age when breadth was returning to learning through the humanists, [Luther] would attack all forms of superstition and thus open the way for a more rational approach to religious belief. Far from it” (p. 229). However, the Protestant attack on relics and images, which, as Freeman explains, seems to be as much about abuses...